The situation in southern Thailand continues to deteriorate. A series of recent attacks indicate a troubling new sophistication by the Islamic insurgents there. The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has responded with legislation that gives it sweeping new powers in the South. The danger, though, is that government action will compound local grievances rather than quiet the insurgency and only accelerate a destabilizing downward spiral.
Thailand’s South is predominately Muslim. The region’s three southern provinces have long complained that they have been neglected by the central government in Bangkok. Those grievances helped launch an insurgency decades ago, which, following a government amnesty in the 1980s, has since dried up.
In recent years, however, the insurgency has resumed, fueled by anger that Thailand’s development and prosperity has not been shared with the South. In 18 months, there have been almost daily attacks that have claimed about 900 lives.
Last week marked a dangerous escalation in the insurgency. Guerrillas attacked the electrical system in the city of Yala, knocking out a power station and plunging the city into darkness. Then some 60 guerrillas used firebombs, grenades and guns to attack a variety of targets, including the police. They scattered metal spikes behind them to prevent security forces from pursuing them. Two policemen were killed in the attacks and nearly two dozen others wounded.
The very next day the insurgents struck again, detonating a bomb that injured another four people in Yala. This attack occurred despite the deployment of about 1,000 troops in the city. In another southern city, two teachers were shot and killed by unidentified gunmen.
In response to “the national crisis,” the Thai government granted Prime Minister Thaksin emergency powers that allow him to impose curfews, directly command the security forces, tap phones, suspend publication of newspapers and detain suspects without charge. Martial law had already been declared in the South, but the new decree increases the government’s powers. The Cabinet imposed emergency rule in the three southern provinces on Tuesday.
Thai authorities have insisted that the insurgency is homegrown. But last week’s attacks reveal an organization and sophistication that is unprecedented. It is tempting to see outside influence at work. Another troubling indication is the upsurge in beheadings, which is reminiscent of militant attacks in Iraq.
While the prospect of foreign involvement is disturbing, the real problem is the escalation of the violence. There is no escaping the fact that Mr. Thaksin’s government has been unable to stop the situation from deteriorating. The military has been the government’s primary tool, even though many of the complaints are social in nature — or at least they were before the government’s heavy-handed response.
The death of 79 prisoners last year, who died as they were being transferred to a military camp, added to local grievances. It is little surprise that increasing numbers of moderate Muslims now sympathize with the extremists. The targeting of teachers has inspired significant numbers of them to apply for transfers elsewhere in the country; this trend will only exacerbate the south’s relative decline.
Mr. Thaksin is a man of action. During his term in office, he has demonstrated little patience for the complexities of democracy; his image is that of someone who cuts through bureaucracies to get things done. His war against drug dealers, which resulted in several thousand deaths, was one example of his preference for results over process. The effects of these predilections are likely to intensify as the prime minister’s popularity falls, wounded by the insurgency, a corruption scandal and economic troubles.
In these circumstances the failure to understand the conditions underlying Muslim grievances will only ensure that the problem gets worse. The insurgents must be stopped and arrested. That requires better intelligence and more effective police and security work. But a military response is not enough.
Attention must be given to the root causes of Muslim anger. The southern provinces lag behind the rest of the country in development and prosperity, and feel like a powerless minority in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist. That alienation must end for the insurgency to be defeated. That, rather than emergency powers, is the key to shutting down the militants. The failure to understand that will only ensure that the guerrilla movement grows stronger.
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